With Port Ellen and Brora withdrawn from the annual special releases collection, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they have been reserved for more exclusive collections or releases. And given the boom nature of the whisky market these days, it would be unrealistic to expect otherwise. Fortunately for those who are less inclined to spend that kind of money – even for these two big names – there are other ways to get a taste.
But first! For the benefit of readers who aren’t familiar with whisky, Port Ellen and Brora are arguably the most famous distilleries that Diageo shut down in the 80s; we’re talking 1980s, of course. At the time, these rather unassuming distilleries were shut down as the powers that be surmised that they were surplus to requirements and they had enough distilleries to shoulder the load. No one thought better of it, until the whiskies came of age, only did they realise in horror what they had done. The discoveries were released as limited edition bottlings and collectively with the indie releases, the names Port Ellen and Brora became legendary. These two names consistently command some of the highest bottle prices at auction, luxury bottlings excepted. The limited edition official bottling of the Port Ellen Untold Stories: The Spirit Safe too, clocked in at $$7000 at launch.
The news that Diageo elected to re-open the two distilleries evoked mixed feelings; how would the new distillate compare? Though the two will be located on familiar ground, it remains to be seen if they can recapture the magic of the originals. Either way, it will only serve to raise the profile (and prices) of the old stock. In short, the cheapest time to buy either Brora or Port Ellen remains the same: today.
The Ghost and Rare (which features Brora) and the Ghost and Rare Port Ellen are essentially opportunities to enjoy the essence of these highly-prized whiskies for a fraction of the price though, mind you, these aren’t cheap to begin with.
Given the price tags, it’s comforting to know that this isn’t just regular Johnnie Walker that’s sprinkled with a dash of the good stuff to legitimise the label; the Ghost and Rare series are unique offerings, each with a special recipe developed to bring out the essence of the distilleries featured. Johnnie Walker Master Blender Jim Beveridge adds: “It’s really interesting to be able to put a spotlight on the character of these whiskies.”
Unlike the regular Blue Labels, Diageo is more forthcoming with what goes into its Ghost blend. The original Ghost and Rare is a blend of eight whiskies, featuring three ghost distilleries in the form of Cambus, Pittyvaich, and Brora. The supporting cast comes in the form of Royal Lochnagar, Clynelish, Glenkinchie, Glenlossie and Cameronbridge. Together, the blend evokes hints of sweet pineapple and hazelnut dark chocolate. And with many old spirits, a subtle smoky finish.
The Ghost and Rare Port Ellen is concocted with Mortlach, Dailuaine, Cragganmore, Blair Athol and Oban, along with grain whiskies from ‘ghost’ distilleries Caledonian and Carsebridge. The grain whiskies form the foundation of the whisky’s creamy vanilla sweetness while Mortlach, Dailuaine, Cragganmore, Blair Athol and Oban support and enhance the waxy citrus, rich malt and tropical fruits. The crowning glory comes at the end – and they really do make you wait till the end – as the whisky fades and Port Ellen’s character shines through like a lighthouse in a fog, guiding your vessel towards its safe harbour. Mind the tax, though.
It’s hard to choose between the two; the Port Ellen is punchier, while the Brora is the more subtle of the two and is one that takes time to develop in the glass as well as on your tongue. We’d be lying if I said that this was an adequate substitute for the real thing, but it was surprising that these blends were able to showcase the qualities that made the ghost distilleries famous while adding something a little different to the mix.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare Brora and Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare Port Ellen are available at all 1855 The Bottle Shop outlets and selected specialist whisky stores and retail at $558 (750ml, 46% abv) and $518 (750ml, 43.8% abv) respectively. At point of writing, 1855 The Bottle Shop is offering the Ghost and Rare Port Ellen at $438.